For Jana Clark, on her birthday

When I was the creative writing rep on Kay Schomp’s arts advisory committee, 1991 – 1993, I learned that a teacher named Jana Clark had been hired for CW. I visited Cole regularly during DSA’s first year, met Jana there, realizing, as soon as I saw her, that we’d been in grad school lit classes together at UCD a few years earlier.

Ah, yes, I thought: she’s that woman who always had something to say. Furthermore, what she had to say was often a relevant point no one had yet raised and sometimes was contrary to the professor’s position. Jana and I were of the same mature age group then, as we are now. The young grad students in those classes were intimidated by her, as well they should have been.

My idea in pursuing the MA was to go into teaching. I was a mid-level program manager and bored. Teaching was that appealing, greener grass on the other side of the fence, but I had no clue what it involved. On one occasion, I needed to meet with Jana at Cole between classes. One of the clues about teaching I lacked was how short the interval between classes is. Students were already trickling in. Four seventh grade girls crashed into the room, giggling, shoving and tripping over a desk, which tipped on its side, taking two of the girls with it, screaming, both of whom then stayed on the floor, laughing hysterically.

Mouth agape, I stared wide-eyed, managed to gesture toward them. Jana, who had not blinked and was still talking, nodded, “Oh, yes, the girls,” and finished the point she was making. It was the first lesson about teaching I learned from Jana Clark.

I call this JC Rule #1: Become unflappable. (It isn’t easy.)

Years later, as I labored over plans in August, Jana dismissed the effort with a wave of her hand: “You can’t plan your classes until you meet your kids.” The wisdom of that stayed with me for the rest of my teaching career. Of course you plan, you have specifics for day one and an overall idea for the semester, but experience proved her right: what works for one class falls flat in another and I never managed to teach a class exactly the same way twice.

JC Rule #2: Students are individuals, not widgets.

If you’ve spent any time in classrooms, you know that in every seventy children you teach, there will be one losing a mother to cancer or a father to divorce, losing someone to suicide or to accident. I’ve been in the creative writing room when such a tragedy came to pass and watched Jana Clark stop everything to break the news, to deal with the response and processing, and finally, the “what can we do.” She had “what we can do” ready, guided her students into supportive and healing activities. I myself still have a bundle of letters Jana had children write to me years ago, cannot quite let them go.

JC Rule #3: Life intrudes, and when it does, that is what you need to be teaching.

I’ve seen Jana get red hot furious for good reasons at school, and watched a student or two in need of chastising be thoroughly chastised. I’ve seen her in arms over something our principal or downtown administration or the state did. “That’s it,” she said when Bill Owens was elected governor, “God help education in Colorado now.” I’ve seen her leave school exhausted at the end of the day and heard her story about driving home so tired she fell asleep at a traffic light.

I robbed Jana of many writing exercises, have, for example, had students “write off the page,” choosing a line of writing to include in writing of their own. I watched her at Cole, as she labored over the seven-year curriculum she was developing, and for years creative writing remained one of the few arts departments with a seven-year curriculum.

Teaching is an art, and a teacher’s personality changes the classroom. I can’t teach like Jana anymore than she could teach like me. Once Jana retired, Sara F-D and I changed some stuff. Once I retired, Sara and Moss Kaplan changed some more. Now that Kaplan and Kohzadi have been running the program for four years, there have been numerous transformations, as there must be.

And yet, the calm and comfortable feeling when you walk into the creative writing rooms remains the same as it ever was. Students still meet in a large circle to write and share writing, or work individually at their computers. And their writing still rocks the world. If they get out of math early, at lunch, after school, they come to the creative writing rooms. They still find there a sense of belonging, a feeling of home. That foundation was laid in a couple of classrooms at Cole a quarter century ago, and is the enduring legacy of Jana Clark.


Posted in Education, Memoir, Writing | 7 Comments

Meditation on the Dress

Most days I have time for email before I teach my class. Last Friday, I was in the midst of a three-way Facebook conversation with the Mexican writer I translate, who lives in Hungary, and a friend of his in Mexico City, who would pass through Denver on his way to Vail and might be able to drop off books for me. I got on Facebook to see how those arrangements were going. I was just in time to see The Dress.

I looked at it for two seconds, said, “What the hell?” and moved on. But it was a lucky hit because then I went to school to see my adorable 8th grade Intro to Writing kids, and they finished sharing their poems with fifteen minutes left in class on a snowy Friday, so I said, “you can work on your creative nonfiction assignment.”

I knew work wasn’t happening. Not in fifteen minutes at end of class on Friday. They knew work was not happening. This is an excellent example of the small pretenses we participate in daily and—for our mutual benefit—tacitly agree not to unmask.

So I’m entering grades on my laptop and talking to Britannia about her ballet competition and Taylor about the memoir she’s writing, and telling the boys with the headphones that if I can hear their music from where I’m sitting it’s too loud and they’ll be deaf by the time they’re forty, when the group of girls across the room bursts into shrieking giggles. They’re on their phones and I hear, “it’s gold and white.” “No, no, it’s blue and black.”

I save my grades, close my laptop and charge across the room. “You girls are entirely too loud,” I say sternly, wagging my finger at them. “And I have just one thing to say to you, Natalie: that dress is gold and white.” Natalie screamed and fell out of her chair. It was very satisfying. Galen, who knows a lot about science and such, came over to say he could explain why some saw the dress one way and—but the girls yelled so loud in protest that it blew the poor boy back to his seat. “Galen,” I confided, “there’s no point in trying to explain these things to the girls: they don’t want to know.”

But then this dress thing spiraled out of control, as you know. I stopped for groceries on my way home and the checker and bagger were discussing what color the dress was. Thirteen and fourteen year olds is one thing. But these were adults. I got home and our adult daughter in San Francisco sent a message: what do you think of the dress? That evening, the damn thing was on the news.

Saturday morning at coffee, Diane said, “this dress thing is absurd.” “Bread and circuses,” I said. Isis, I was thinking. Beheadings. Melting polar ice caps. The widening gap between the rich and the rest of us. Fracking and what it’s doing to our ground water. Police and minority issues. A Congress that does nothing but play political games. What happened to “bring back our Nigerian girls,” who we went viral over nine months ago? What happened to our 43 Mexican college students? Young innocents who were never returned, who will never be returned, about whom we’ve forgotten.

Roman emperors gave the rabble bread and circuses and they forget their discontents. Our bread and circuses are in giant sports arenas too, but also on every cell phone screen. With us, it’s llamas on the lam and the color of the dress.

“I beg to differ,” said Phil, who can be counted on to differ. “The dress is a release, an escape, a way to momentarily relax stress.” Considering the litany of ills that was running through my head, I thought he might be right.

Then I remembered my students, and the worry poems they wrote. They worry about people not liking them, about not fitting in, about their grades, about not having enough Instagram followers, about laughing too loud, about grades, about food stuck in their braces, about forgetting everything when it comes time to play the piano piece or take the test, about being accepted, waking up late for school, the test they have today, tomorrow, next week, whether Mom will like the gift they bought, about not getting enough sleep, about being too short, too tall, too heavy, too thin, having hair that won’t behave, about schedules with too many lessons and no fun time, about never getting enough sleep, about the future, about car crashes, plane crashes, about growing up, about not having good enough grades to get into college, about being compared to older siblings, about their parents divorcing and whether they will continue to see their fathers, about slipping down the slide of life and not being able to get back up, about dying, about parents dying, about saying goodbye to those they love.

So yeah. Let those girls have their five minutes of giggling about the color of the dress.

Posted in Education, Humor | 1 Comment

A Sketch: Earl Mann (1886 – 1969)

We were leaving the pub when a photo at the door stopped me. Like all the photos decorating The Whittier, it was a historic neighborhood black and white, acquired from the wonderful Colorado Historic Society/Denver Public Library collection. The gentleman in this photo wore a three-piece suit and a humorous, mocking look for the camera. He radiated confidence. This guy was in charge.

Later, I chanced upon one of those neighborhood history booklets, thumbed through it while in line to check out, and found that same photo. Colorado’s second black representative, Earl Mann was elected to five terms in the state legislature, served from 1944 – 1953.

Photo taken in 1942

Photo taken in 1942

Born June 8, 1886 in Iowa, Mann graduated from high school, attended a Chicago technical school for engineering. I imagine he was the only African American in some of those classes. One of the first blacks to be commissioned by the Army in 1917, he served in France in World War I, was chlorine gassed there. In the 30s and 40s, writing for The Colorado Statesman, an African American newspaper, he signed himself “Lieut. Earl W. Mann.” He was justly proud of that officer rank.

On May 17, 1930, his column was about a colored man being lynched in Sherman, Texas. (It was 1930. “Colored” was the polite usage.) He talks about the attempt a few years earlier to enact legislation “making lynching a federal offense… Its passage failed in the Congress.” Incredible, isn’t it?

In the 50s, he and his wife Grace bought a home at 2149 High Street, two blocks on the wrong side of the color line. Twenty or so years earlier, blacks had been strongly discouraged from buying south of 23rd in east Denver. The KKK burned crosses on their lawns if they did. Mann surely knew that history and took satisfaction in living there.

2149 High Street

2149 High Street

In the Blair Caldwell Library’s collection, there’s a photo of him and several white men, all in suits and ties, sitting in his living room, a generous bookshelf filling the wall behind him. I made out two titles, the then popular historical novelist Thomas B. Costain, and a book about Liberia, the U.S. colony created to send freed slaves back to Africa. That brilliant plan didn’t work out. Mann lived in the High Street house until his death in 1969 and Grace remained there until hers, in 1974. They had no children.

On winning a place in the 1940 Republican primary, Lt. Mann wrote: “I feel confident of victory in November if TEN THOUSAND COLORED PEOPLE WILL SUPPORT ONE OF THEIR OWN, WITH THE SAME ENTHUSIASM AS ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND WHITES STAND WILLING TO DO.” (His caps. He felt the need to yell at his people.)

I did say Republican primary. In this neighborhood so solidly black and Democratic when I moved here in 1984, it seems odd. But it was so. There’s a photo of him with Mamie Eisenhower and her daughter at a political event in the 50s. When he won a place in that primary, the Statesman hoped he’d be elected, “which will be a signal honor to his race.”

Mann resisted such pigeonholing. Toward the end of his tenure in the legislature, he was charged with “misrepresenting” the Denver Negro community, in the Denver Post, March 9, 1953. He responded swiftly that he’d never claimed to serve only the Negro community, that he was elected to five terms “by overwhelming margins and the people knew I was a Negro. I do not get my support only from Denver Negroes and do not represent only Denver Negroes.” (It was the 50s. “Negro” was the polite usage.)

And the people knew I was a Negro: his mocking tone matches the look that stopped me at the pub. His “So They Say” columns, in the elaborate language of the day, often resist stereotyping and promote education:

“Ignorance is a blight, and those who merely stand upon the sidelines and sigh, making no effort to better conditions of which they complain, are in my judgment, but little better, if any, than those who contribute to moral and spiritual retrogression.” (Colorado Statesman, February 9, 1940)

He deals frankly with race in politics: “I resent just as greatly, hearing one of the Reactionary Republicans say: “You Colored people owe perpetual fidelity to the Party of Lincoln,” as I do hearing the Democrats say: “Our liberal social views preclude any distinction based upon race or color.”

Mann helped defeat the Alien Land Act, 1944, which would have forbidden Japanese from owning land in Colorado. His column on that was called “Taking the Heat,” and mentions the “flames of the KKK wrath” faced by those who opposed the bill. The bill “was merely fascism appearing in a new suit of clothes, without bathing, permitting the noxious body odors to disclose its identity, and its subtle purpose: Japanese and then Negroes and Jews.” (February 19, 1944)

Next time you’re in The Whittier for a burger and brew, pause at the door to salute Earl Mann, one of those who broke trail in Denver so others might more easily follow.


Posted in Education, Neighborhood | 2 Comments

Banana Bread & Salad Days

This situation is Kathleen Cain’s fault for being burglarized. She came home to find her front door kicked in. Among belongings impossible to replace, the lousy thieves took a box of checks. If that hadn’t happened, Kathleen would not have gone to the bank to get her account changed. And if she hadn’t gone to the bank, she wouldn’t have started talking to Amanda Duran, the bank employee who helped her. Of course, Kathleen had to mention how the robbers tore open a little treasure chest, hoping for diamonds, only to find her collection of shells and stones

“When they rob a poet, that’s the kind of treasure they’ll find,” Kathleen said.

“My grandfather was the first poet laureate of Colorado,” Amanda offered.

“Lalo Delgado was your grandfather?” Kathleen exclaimed.

Connections were made and a few days later, Amanda found a copy of that infamous Westword cover for the article I wrote and posted it on Facebook. Obviously it’s Kathleen’s fault that I started thinking, “I know I have copies of that somewhere…”

* * *

Several weeks earlier our neighbor Eric popped over with half a loaf of banana bread. “I just made it,” he said, clearly proud of himself.

“Very impressive,” I replied, oven-fresh warmth in my hands.

“Well, it wasn’t that hard. I used a mix,” he admitted.

Nonetheless it was endearing. So a week or two later when I happened to make a banana cake with nuts and chocolate icing from scratch, I took a slice over as a thank you.

Disclaimer: I should say now that Eric’s partner Jenn is not guilty in any of the ensuing proceedings.

“He won’t take that lying down,” Phil said sagely.

I had no idea what he was talking about.

* * *

I ransacked the basement fruitlessly, next tried boxes stored on a top closet shelf. A ladder is required. I do not have time for this. I’m supposed to be grading student stories and translating a biography. Instead, I’m wiping off grimy box lids. Two dust-induced sneeze attacks later, at the bottom of a box, I find my yellowed copy of the Westword cover of April 22, 1982. It has word balloons scrawled in ink all over it.

* * *

I found out what Phil was talking about. Last week, Eric appeared at the door with another tinfoil package. He was wearing gloves, one of which he threw down on my doorstep. “Oh, right,” he said, “nuts and chocolate and everything. Take this.” Apparently Phil understands men better than I do. I baked something and so why not return the favor, right? I guess men don’t really think like that. I mean, he threw down his glove right there in my doorway. And his new banana bread had blueberries in it.

* * *

Ray Gonzalez grabbed my Westword a few days after it came out and wrote word balloons for everyone. His own says, “What am I doing with these lesser talents?” (Sorry, Ray: you had to know this would come back to haunt you eventually.) Kathleen’s says, “You gotta be kidding!” Mine says, “I hope they still speak to me after this.” In fact, as Ray knew, some poets who were not in the photo or article did stop speaking to me after that. What the hell, I say now: that article was a collection of amusing anecdotes and there were some poets about whom I had no amusing anecdotes. Young and naive, I was disillusioned. I’d thought poets were more high-minded than the average human. I like Lalo Delgado’s balloon best: for him Ray wrote, “What a bunch of silly gringos!”

* * *

“You’re in a bake-off now,” Phil said, rubbing his hands together, after Eric retrieved his glove and left. “So here’s my idea for the next banana bread…”

See, I just love the way Phil has great ideas for things I should do. I also just love the way men turn everything into a competition. Blueberries in banana bread, though: that’s just wrong.

Two of those cover poets are gone: Lalo Delgado, Colorado’s first poet laureate, a gentle man with a thunderous reading voice and Craig Crist-Evans, who left Colorado and died too young. This April, 1982 issue included the guide for the Fifth Denver Film Festival, now in its 33rd year, and an article titled “El Salvador: Another Vietnam?” Ad phone numbers did not include area codes: we only had one. To paraphrase Joan Didion, we keep such artifacts to remember what it was like to be us.

Kathleen said she was going to reread the article. “Oh, my God, I wouldn’t do that,” I gasped. Luckily, I didn’t come across it in my search, only these photos. Let dead dogs lie, I say. I have a chapter to translate and need to go to the store. Phil’s given me an idea for banana bread that will blow Eric right off the block. But the fact that I don’t have my chapter translated? That’s still Kathleen’s fault.

Top row, L to R: Jess Graf, Beth McKee, Ray Gonzalez; middle, Doug Anderson, Kathleen Cain, Little Jess Graf, Pat Dubrava; front, Lalo Delgado, Craig Crist-Evans

Top row, L to R: Jess Graf, Beth McKee, Ray Gonzalez; middle, Doug Anderson, Kathleen Cain, Little Jess Graf, Pat Dubrava; front, Lalo Delgado, Craig Crist-Evans


Posted in Humor, Memoir, Neighborhood | 14 Comments